A Trail of Ideas


A certain type of slime mold[1] spends its life as a single celled creature moving through moist soil and fallen leaves hunting down and eating bacteria.[2] While food is plentiful, the mold cells divide to produce offspring which take up the family business of hunting and eating bacteria. When food becomes scarce because of environment changes or overpopulation, the mold cells sense that the environment will not support them. This triggers a major behavioral change. The cells end their individualistic lifestyle and begin banding together to form a multicellular organism. This organism develops complete with skin and various sensory organs as well as the capacity to move and react as a singular body.

[3] We see this moldy band of slime siblings as a ‘slug’.[4] The slug is a collection of mold cells that is moving in search for a suitable place to transform once again and spawn specialized seeds (cells called spores) which are tailored to spread and survive through a periods of what would the equivalent of a famine or some other environmental or social disaster in human culture. Once the slug finds a suitable place to produce spores, it changes again. It begins sacrificing parts of the community of cells to form a new organ called a stalk, [5]  and still others to become reproductive structures[6] that will cultivate and release spore cells into the environment. The spores scatter and if the environment allows, they spawn new mold colonies that begin the process of hunting and eating bacteria again.

If we examine the thought processes and behaviors of social bodies like cultures and communities in humans, we see the same principles of behavior expressed in the slime mold’s life cycle replicated in human social behaviors. Individual cultures transform under perceived threat to become less individualistic and draw into itself. Banding together to form differentiated social organs and to move as a unit. In order to accomplish these various survival behaviors It also sacrifices portions of its now collective body so that a remnant can have a better chance to survive intact and go forward in time.

From this perspective, nation states can be seen as the behavioral offspring of tribes just as slugs (from a certain perspective) are the behavioral offspring of previously individuated mold cells. The same biological tendencies we see in a slug in search of a suitable location to release spores, we also see when social structures are under perceived stress. There are many more parallels that can be drawn to illustrate the way biology and sociality echoes a consistent theme of self similarity combined with variations on that theme, the theme being to nourish and defend integrity of a coherent community of relationships in the context of environmental opportunities and threats. When we look at human and other animal social aspects trough this biological lens, a clearer perspective opens up to understand the difference between the theme, and the variations on the theme. We can get a clearer image of the biological foundations of what motivates the different trends we see in our own lives and times as well as some of what makes our history and potential futures tick.

The parallels between biological entities with complex life cycles and sociality identify biology and sociality as fraternal twins – variants on the theme of aggregating multiple strategies aligned around nourishing and defending a coherent structure in the face of environmental opportunities and challenges. When human ancestors ventured out of the trees and developed hunter gatherer cultures, this was probably in response to an environmental change that necessitated that innovation. An innovation that is as old as the mold becoming a multicellular creature.

From this perspective we can also see how individual and group world views emerge in relation to the necessities of environmental demands. It could also be noted that some of the sacrificial themes that have peppered many religious world views throughout the ages may be simply an intuitive expression of the recognition of these sacrificial biological necessities for survival that emerge. The point is the roots for the kinds of things we do socially can be traced beck to a time before symbolic words ever graced the human lips, much less played a role in defining human culture to any degree.

The theme running through all of biology is the development attributes to nourish and protect itself as a coherent entity. The manufacture and application of proteins by way of DNA-RNA and the various other cellular machinery, the development of various appendages and sense organs, specialized teeth, claws, sexual reproduction, the development of multicellularity, and sociality are all variations on this same theme. Human culture is perhaps best viewed as a byproduct of this overall biological tendency more so than as some kind of independent driver of action. In an attempt to carry on the delicate balance that biology depends on in the midst of environmental diversity, cultural ideologies may be nature’s way of symbolically codifying what it takes to cope with survival – to nourish and to defend. It might be unsettling for some of us to face, but from a certain perspective, human culture is both as fantastic and as mundane as the slime trail of a slug.

[1] dictyostelium discoideum

[2] Escherichia coli among other bacteria

[3] A molecular messenger called Cyclic adenosine monophosphate (Cyclic AMP) and another substance called differentiation-inducing factor, coax the cells to become specialized to serve a function in the context of the slug body.

[4] This stage is called aggregation which forms what is called a motile pseudoplasmodium, also known as a slug.

[5] Called a “fruiting body”

[6] Called spores.

14 responses to “A Trail of Ideas

  1. This is a brilliant analogy. I will never again garden without seeing these creatures and having a deep existential conversation inside my mind.

    • I am really glad you like it. I tried to make the topic “sticky” so we can use the information to make wiser choices. As we also know from biology, sometimes this carrying forward effect of what was once of survival value can actually have negative value. Changing environmental conditions demand different behaviors, but cultural memes can persist in a kind of mindless mob rule apparatus when we look at ourselves as a collective cultural body over time. What once worked well as a means of survival may now have negative survival value and the process by which it is selected out can be quite painful for a biological population. It can also lead to extinction of an entire biological form. I hope we leverage our capacity to reason to minimize this potentially painful lesson on sustainability that reality asserts whether we like it or not.

      • You know where I’m mentally applying this thought–my field (education). On a personal level, it’s so very easy to say, “Yup, that’s the truth,” and apply this consciously. However, in fields that have been largely taken over by this–it needs a name–don’t want to say “slug theory,” because that implies lazy, and this is more Soviet…
        It’s tough to extrapolate oneself from entire organizations that think like that–you become somewhat of an outlier until you can shift.

        But the motto is, “Think honestly; Do the right thing.”

  2. This was very interesting to read and yields up some fertile soil for thought. Thanks!

  3. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    This is an excellent article – just excellent. So plainly put, and so thought provoking. I like the first commenter’s words.

  4. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    I loved ‘the family business of eating more bacteria’ because it’s like how we take on our family ways unthinkingly. It’s natural, mind, as it’s all we know for a while. But taking on the family business of perpetrating more abuse (eating more bacteria) is just not on…yet like I said, unthinkingly.

    I know that’s not the war theme you were talking, & jettisoning some parts of a mass’ culture etc, but that’s what got me thinking – I was thinking in that direction.

    Also fully loved your last line, re “as fantastic and mundane”. Excellent final statement.

    • It seems the stuff I am trying to get out there is connecting in the way I intend which is quite gratifying and frankly, thus far, rare at least in terms of the feedback I have received thus far. It is very helpful to hear how you are digesting it, so thank you for your thoughts.

      I agree that we can easily be caged and blinded by our “family” or cultural traditions to the point we don’t even recognize the cage much less the way out. I am trying to forge a useful and intelligible map for us to be able to be more intentional about cultivating a nourishing environment that contributes to our fullest most satisfied state of being. At the same time I am trying not to come across as knowing anything mystical, because I don’t.

  5. Incredible. First I found out Santa does not exist – and now slugs self-assemble. Life in its cold realities is cruel – and fascinating. I really look forward to gleaning more information for my writing from your studies. Fascinating. (!)

  6. Pingback: The Green Study “Worst Job I Ever Had” Contest: 1st Place | The Green Study

  7. Astonishing life cycle, and a good analogy to human society.

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